It’s been a week since the finale, but Penny Dreadful is still haunting my dreams, but not in the way you might think. While it was mildly chilling, it left a lot to be considered. Because there is so much to talk about in this show, it took me a week to process through some of the developments in the final moments of the show. Let’s take a look at the few episodes leading up to the finale. I’ll briefly remind you here, and then we’ll really get into a discussion about the season finale at the end.
Closer Than Sisters
This episode gives us the back story on the reserved, poised Miss Ives. This episode is almost exclusively a flashback and is framed through the narrative of Vanessa’s letters to Mina. Vanessa remembers their childhoods as best friends
and neighbors, and their idyllic childhood growing up next to each other separated by only a lush hedgemaze.
We learn that their two families were very close and that a torrid affair between Vanessa’s mother and Sir Malcolm caused tension among them all — especially after Vanessa discovered them in the hedgemaze. We also learn that Vanessa and Mina’s brother were close, yet he rejected her upon leaving for Africa. Once Peter rejected her, she seduced Mina’s fiance on the eve of their wedding and upon doing so, awoke a dark spirit in herself that came down on her with a terrible vengeance. The rest of the episode explored the depths of her possession and ends after her mother drops dead, having seen Vanessa naked, presumable having sex with an invisible demon.
What Death Can Join Together
This episode concerns itself mainly with the revealing of secrets. Victor learns that Van Helsing’s wife was a vampire, and that he had to kill her himself. This foreshadows a later event in which the monster, Caliban is smitten with an actress at the theater, but then becomes dejected when he overhears her mocking him. Caliban, bent on retribution, murders Van Helsing in front of Victor as revenge for Victor not delivering on his promise.
Dorian continues to romance Vanessa, taking her to dinner and sharing his hall of portraits with her. He remarks on her poise and control, and challenges her to allow herself to lose control. Vanessa warns him against this, and he sees firsthand what can happen when she lets go. As they fall into bed together, Vanessa becomes increasingly aggressive and violent; cutting him with a blade then licking the blood from the wound. At “the” moment, Vanessa is possessed by the same spirit as her youth, and leaves Dorian’s bed in a hurried rush.
While Vanessa was with Dorian, losing it, Malcolm, Victor and Ethan explored a quarantined ship that held a nest of screeching, white-haired, female vampires that can be killed, apparently, with a gun. The mythology of this show is a little sketchy, and it changes based on the the characters’ needs at the moment, but this show was never really solely about the monsters. Was it?
This installment focuses exclusively on Vanessa’s possession, and it was a brutal sixty minutes to watch. Eva
Green captures the tortured spirit like no other, and her lithe, wraith-like frame makes the contorted motions of a woman possessed by Satan all the more believable. There is scene after scene in which she is writing, spitting, seizing, scratching, and you can’t take your eyes off of the screen.
Malcolm and the boys hole up at the house to take care of her, and each turn with the possessed Vanessa reveals something about each. We learn that Ethan, while he left Brona’s sickbed to tend to Vanessa, was also in love with Dorian and still fantasizes about their night together. It is revealed that Malcolm was an unapologetic womanizer, and slept his way through the Eastern hemisphere because he couldn’t stand his fat wife, and that he left Peter to die in a foreign country without naming a mountain after him. In a shocking bit of business, we also see that Victor has a drug habit, and is being stalked by his monster, who, apparently is immune to the cold.
The episode ends with Vanessa having bitten a piece of the priest’s face off when he tried to give her last rites; he flees the room and she is left begging Ethan to kill her. Much to our surprise, Ethan uses the St. Jude medal Brona gave him to exorcise the demon from Vanessa. Who knew the American would be the one to have the most religion?
Which brings us to the finale… Grand Guignol
The Grand Guignol is a famous 19th century theater in Paris that specialized in the Penny Dreadful horror shows. Its a fitting name for the episode because the climax of the action takes place in the theater that has been in almost every episode. Mina’s whereabouts came to Vanessa in a dream, and when she relays this to Malcolm, this ignites the rising action that will lead to the finale’s dramatic (although predictable) end.
In this last episode, we suffered through several emotional scenes that brought the characters to the their emotional zenith. Brona, growing sicker and sicker from tuberculosis over the season, spends her last moments with Ethan, who prays by her side while she suffers. His tears are almost too much to bear, so when he calls in Victor to aid her in her last moments, there is a glimmer of hope that she might be saved. That is, until Victor sends Ethan away
for a moment and puts the pillow over her face and kills her.
Victor has been an enigma over the course of the first season, and Harry Treadaway produced some of the finest acting I’ve seen. At times sympathetic, Victor has always felt like a victim to me, and I’ve admired his attempts to thwart Caliban’s wish for a wife. At one point in the episode, he holds a gun to Caliban’s head, having learned to shoot from Ethan, but he can’t pull the trigger. This act is symbolic of this acceptance of his “child.” Until then, his refusals seemed heroic, but when we realize what he intends to use Brona to fullfill Caliban’s wish, it is a twist I didn’t really see coming. When he pulls the sheet back to reveal Brona’s body, and then begins to cut into her while his monster looks on, it is an assault to my sensibilities. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not so self-righteous that I’m not rooting for Billie Piper to make a kick ass Bride of Frankenstein. I know good TV when I see it.
If Treadway’s work on Penny Dreadful is worth mentioning, then Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster is worth all the keystrokes I can muster. Kinnear worked the intricacies of humanity better than any other actor playing a supernatural creature, and Caliban’s need to love and be loved is palpable while on screen. His crush on the actress Maude, and her returned kindness, was a thing of beauty, until it turned ugly. Watching Caliban misread the situation, and then mishandle his own emotions was tough. When he visited her, in full makeup, and she mocked him, my heart broke. But when his humanity left him as he felt ashamed he attacker her for her laughter. His dismissal from the theatre was a real loss, and I felt his grief as he was escorted out of the theatre.
Once Caliban was out of the way, the gang could show up to rightfully fight the creature holding Mina, and save her from her tortured existence. The Penny Dreadful writers have been dropping hints about Mina’s “rescue” for weeks, and in the next-to-last episode, Sembene, worries that Malcolm won’t be able to do what needs to be done if Mina can’t be saved. And as it turns out, she can’t be saved, as we see in those final moments in the theatre.
After fighting (for what seemed like forever) the group is overcome by the screechy she-vampires and it comes down to the choice between Mina and Vanessa. When Malcolm shoots Mina, he verbalizes what many of us have been thinking all along: that Vanessa is his real daughter (especially given the tawdry past with her mother). It was a nice, symmetrical ending to a relationship that has seen its ups and down throughout the season. However, it does raise some questions about the nature of their alliance going forward.
While Malcolm’s acceptance of his surrogate child was surprising, nothing compared to Ethan’s shocker. The season has been peppered with hints about his tumultuous relationship with his father, so it was no surprise when two bounty hunters show up to collect him. He fought them off in two different scenes, and in the last few minutes of the show we see him change into a WEREWOLF. My mouth was hanging open even as the credits began to roll.
Ethan’s change in those last moments was so out of place that I did a double take at the screen, thinking for a second that I was witnessing a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde situation. But once the shock wore off, I made sense of it — he is the only American in the series, and werewolf lore is a construct of the American studio system. However, it seemed an odd choice for a show so steeped in a Gothic system, and this leaves the biggest cliffhanger of them all.
How will Ethan’s status as a supernatural creature effect his place in the group? How will he react to Brona’s new status, for that matter? Tweet me your thoughts about this season. @sroseholt
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